The Vietnam War, a documentary

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This weekend, at last, The Vietnam War will land on our rooftops, ready to transport us back a half century and more to a conflict “begun in good faith, by decent people, out of fateful misunderstandings” that led to “a decade of agony—the most divisive period since the Civil War.” It was a “tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable. But meaning can be found in the individual stories of those who lived through it—stories of courage, and comradeship, and perseverance, of understanding and forgiveness and, ultimately, reconciliation.”

Those words, spoken by narrator Peter Coyote with his calming, authoritative voice, frame this massive, ten-part, eighteen-hour documentary by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick that opens on September 17. It will run on PBS from Sunday through Thursday for two weeks. Then, in an excess of binge broadcasting, PBS will re-air the film every week from October 3 until November 28.

This is the first of seven blog posts about the documentary. Though each entry will include commentary that pertains to the entire film, I will also track the episodes chronologically. Gratifying as it is to share my thoughts, I am even more eager to hear your reactions to the film. Burns and Novick have expressed the hope that their work will inspire a national conversation about the war and its contested meanings and lessons. Sharing that hope, I urge readers to post their reactions and questions on this site.

First, a few words of background and context. I can’t think of anyone who has shaped modern American historical memory more persistently, prolifically, and successfully than Ken Burns. For nearly forty years, his production company, Florentine Films, has made film after film, thirty in all, and all of them about United States history. Since most of them are long, ambitious, multi-episode series that require years to complete, Florentine always has several documentaries in production at once. All have been widely broadcast and many have attracted enormous audiences. The Civil War, for example, aired on five consecutive nights in 1990 and became (and remains) the most-watched program in PBS history, reaching 40 million viewers. More recently, The Roosevelts (2014), was seen by 33 million people (three times the audience for the popular Downton Abbey). Though Burns has long relied on a large and talented team, one of his colleagues, Lynn Novick, has earned co-producer and co-director billing for a number of Florentine films, including The War (2007, on World War II), Prohibition (2011), and now, The Vietnam War.

Ten years in the making, The Vietnam War has probably been more eagerly anticipated than any of Florentine’s films. It is surely the most controversial subject Burns has engaged and, he reports, the most challenging (“It’s the most complicated film I’ve ever worked on”). In sheer size, it dwarfs all other film documentaries on the subject, including the eleven-hour, thirteen-part PBS documentary Vietnam: A Television History (1983). The length of the series and the seriousness of the topic demand a great deal of viewers, but the power and reach of the Burns brand, along with the film’s compelling storytelling, guarantee that many millions will watch at least a significant portion of the whole. Indeed, over time it will undoubtedly reach more people than any book ever written about the Vietnam War and may even rival in audience some of the landmark Hollywood films about the war such as Apocalypse Now (1979) and Platoon (1986). It is critical, therefore, that history teachers of all kinds—not just Vietnam War specialists—give this documentary serious attention.

For many months, Burns and Novick have traveled the country promoting the film. Last April, for example, Burns introduced it at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin with a short talk, a compilation of clips, and an interview. The appearance seemed designed to entice the widest possible audience by sticking to inoffensive generalizations. Burns claimed that he and Novick “had no political agenda. We had no ax to grind. We thought of ourselves as umpires calling balls and strikes.” This classic claim of objectivity might strike historians as naïve, but it may instead reflect the filmmakers’ shrewd calculation that a pose of neutrality is useful when pitching a project with so many hot buttons. After all, the film is hardly shy about declaring the war a “tragedy, immeasurable and irredeemable”—a view that is every bit as “political” as the view that the war was a noble cause (a position still held by a significant number of Americans and Vietnamese on all sides), or the claim that the United States fought an unjust war of imperial aggression (also a position held by a significant number of Americans and Vietnamese).

In Austin, Burns described the Vietnam War as a “virus” that divided America into warring camps. He and Novick, he said, hoped the film would provide a “sort of vaccine” to cure our nation’s polarized thinking by presenting “a multiplicity of perspectives and truths that can co-exist at the same time.” But surely neither filmmaker intended to give all perspectives equal weight. A major question for us in viewing the film is to determine which “truths” get the most emphasis. Burns provided a major clue in Austin when he said: “There are lots of lessons . . . but one of the lessons we did learn from Vietnam and we will never forget as a people is that we will no longer blame the warriors [applause]. I’d like Vietnam veterans to stand up and be acknowledged [big applause]. We made this film for you.”

These applause lines raise serious questions at the outset. First, is it an unchallengeable “truth” that American soldiers were blamed for the conduct and outcome of the Vietnam War? By whom? Also, is it possible to make a film for one side’s combatants and still remain neutral? In any case, I suggest that our close attention to how American soldiers and veterans are represented will be essential to our understanding of the film’s implicit and explicit interpretation of history. Through these posts, I will also encourage an effort to examine details that complicate and even defy the film’s most obvious sympathies.

Christian G. Appy is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. His next post, about Episode 1, will appear following its East Coast broadcast on Sunday, September 17. He is the author of American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity (2015), Patriots: The Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides (2003), and Working-Class War: American Combat Soldiers and Vietnam (1993). He also serves as an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.

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6 Comments

  1. As much as I aspire to know history, and given that my older brother served in and died in the Vietnam war, I was most interested in and surprised by the portrayal of Ho Chi Minh in episode one. I had always thought of him as a pawn of Russia and China. I never knew the US used him against the Japanese in Vietnam much tha way it did Ben Laden against the Russia in Afghanistan.

    • Thanks for writing in, Tim O’Brien. Yes, that brief U.S. alliance with Ho and Giap in the summer of ’45 is fascinating and presents one of the most compelling “what ifs” of the entire history (e.g. What if the U.S. had recognized VNese independence in ’45 and kept the French from going back in to reconquer their former colony). As much support as Ho, et. al. got from China and the USSR in the years ahead, they were never pawns.

  2. Ah, Peter Coyote, the narrator. From an article in THE WEEK, 28 July edition: Peter Coyote, co-leader of the Diggers, later recalled that he “was interested in two things: overthrowing the government and f…ing. They went together seamlessly.”

  3. I’ll be following your blog closely as I watch the Burns-Novick documentary. Not only do I want to learn more about the Vietnam War (I’m also reading Stanley Karnow’s history of Vietnam), assessing HOW history is presented is also important. As talented, professional, and passionate as Burns and Novick are, there will certainly be errors, omissions, and overstatements, as well as revelations. So your analysis here is appreciated.

  4. http://www.errolmorris.com/film/fow_transcript.html
    from the film “The Fog of War”

    Robert McNamara:
    October 2nd. I had returned from Vietnam. At that time, we had 16,000 military advisors. I recommended to President Kennedy and the Security Council that we establish a plan and an objective of removing all of them within two years.
    October 2nd, 1963
    Kennedy: The advantage to taking them out is?
    McNamara: We can say to the Congress and people that we do have a plan for reducing the exposure of U.S. combat personnel.
    Kennedy: My only reservation about it is if the war doesn’t continue to go well, it will look like we were overly optimistic.
    McNamara: We need a way to get out of Vietnam, and this is a way of doing it.
    Kennedy announced we were going to pull out all of our military advisors by the end of ’65 and we were going to take 1000 out by the end of ’63 and we did. But, there was a coup in South Vietnam. Diem was overthrown and he and his brother were killed.
    I was present with the President when together we received information of that coup. I’ve never seen him more upset. He totally blanched. President Kenndy and I had tremendous problems with Diem, but my God, he was the authority, he was the head of state. And he was overthrown by a military coup. And Kennedy knew and I knew, that to some degree, the U.S. government was responsible for that. ….
    I am inclined to believe that if Kennedy had lived, he would have made a difference. I don’t think we would have had 500,000 men there.

    from JFK and the Unspeakable: Why he died and why it matters by James Douglass
    about the Kennedy – Morse meeting of November 12, 1963:

    Senator Wayne Morse came to the White House to see the president about his education bills. Kennedy wanted to talk instead about Vietnam — to his most vehement war critic. Morse had been making two to five speeches a week in the Senate against Kennedy on Vietnam. JFK took Morse out into the White House Rose Garden to avoid being overheard or bugged by the CIA.
    The president the startled Morse by saying: “Wayne, I want you to know you’re absolutely right in your criticism of my Vietnam policy. Keep this in mind. I’m in the midst of an intensive study which substantiates your position on Vietnam. When I’m finished, I want you to give me half a day and come over and analyze it point by point.”
    Taken aback, Morse asked the president if he understood his objections.
    Kennedy said, “If I don’t understand your objections by now, I never will.”
    JFK made sure Morse understood what he was saying. He added, “Wayne, I’ve decided to get out. Definitely!”
    Yet a mind needs hands to carry out its intentions. A president’s hands are his staff and extended government bureaucracy. As Kennedy knew, when it came down to the nitty-gritty of carrying out his decision to end the Vietnam War, his administrative hands were resistant to doing what he wanted them to do, especially his Pentagon hands. He also knew that to withdraw from Vietnam “after I win the election” in the fall of 1964, he now had to inspire his aides to continue moving the machinery for withdrawal that he activated on October 11 with National Security Action Memorandum 263.”

    http://www.bostonreview.net/BR28.5/galbraith.html
    Exit Strategy
    In 1963, JFK ordered a complete withdrawal from Vietnam
    James K. Galbraith
    Forty years have passed since November 22, 1963, yet painful mysteries remain. What, at the moment of his death, was John F. Kennedy’s policy toward Vietnam?
    It’s one of the big questions, alternately evaded and disputed over four decades of historical writing. It bears on Kennedy’s reputation, of course, though not in an unambiguous way.
    And today, larger issues are at stake as the United States faces another indefinite military commitment that might have been avoided and that, perhaps, also cannot be won. The story of Vietnam in 1963 illustrates for us the struggle with policy failure. More deeply, appreciating those distant events tests our capacity as a country to look the reality of our own history in the eye.

    http://www.politicalassassinations.com/2013/11/vietnam-and-the-legacy-of-the-jfk-presidency/
    Vietnam and the Legacy of the JFK Presidency
    November 28, 2013

    Kennedy was unequivocally planning to withdraw from Vietnam. Pierre Salinger, his press secretary wrote that he could not understand why people question this since he was told to announce it on the White House steps to the press. The son of John Kenneth Galbraith has written recently about the evidence his father knew as well. Peter Dale Scott and Fletcher Prouty constructed the language of the National Security Action Memoranda that ordered the start of the withdrawal just prior to his death and LBJ’s reversal as soon as he came into office. The State Department released the full text of these documents years ago, just after Stone’s film came out. My mother worked for the Joint Chiefs at the Pentagon as a manpower analyst who projected the national draft call five years in advance, accurate within 100 men. She used percentages derived from experience as well as attrition projections for any given conflict planned. She told me that in April of 1963 for the first time in her career she was told to change her projections on orders of the Kennedy White House and to add in a full withdrawal of American troops from Vietnam by the end of 1964. These were not contingency plan figures, they were implementation projections and had to be right. She told me that his policy was reversed with escalation projections on November 25, 1963, the day of his burial, and she challenged the figures given to her by the Operation and Plans division and the Joint Chiefs. Probably the first civilian protest to the war in Vietnam, because she could not believe the figures. In a full reversal of Kennedy’s policy they told her to project a 10 year war with 57,000 American dead, exactly on target. This false debate about Kennedy’s intentions regarding Vietnam and other liberation struggles against colonial rule in Africa and Central/South America not only obfuscates his intentions, it covers up the intentions for permanent war by those who killed him and why they did. John Judge, Executive Director, COPA

    Vietnam and the Legacy of the JFK Presidency
    By Paul Jay
    The Real News Network
    Friday, 22 November 2013 11:12
    http://truth-out.org/news/item/20207-vietnam-and-the-legacy-of-the-jfk-presidency-peter-kuznick-on-reality-asserts-itself

    TRANSCRIPT:
    PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. And welcome to Reality Asserts Itself.
    November 22 is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. We’re going to take a look at the significance of his presidency, his accomplishments, and/or lack thereof. And, of course, everything to do with that presidency is a matter of debate. Whether or not President Kennedy actually wanted to pull out of Vietnam or not, and of course the assassination itself, has been the subject of hundreds of books with competing theories. But we’re going to try and take a big-picture look at just what Kennedy represented in terms of the flow of American post-World War II history.
    Now joining us to kick off our discussion about Kennedy is Peter Kuznick. He’s a professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University. He’s cowriter of the ten-part Showtime series called Untold History of the United States with Oliver Stone.

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